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Review of Through the Ages

Ed. Note:  This review was written by Tom Vassel

The computer game I've played more than other is easily Sid Meyer's Civilization series - I love the historical aspects to it, the combat mixed with empire building, etc. I've longed for a board game version, and while I enjoyed the Eagle Games version, it just didn't hold up to repeated plays - it was too long with little payoff. 7 Ages from Australian Design Group came close to exactly what I wanted, but has a high time requirement, taking days to complete a full game. I was therefore cautiously optimistic when I first heard about Through the Ages (Eagle Games, 2007 - Vlaada Chvátil), with so many raving about this three to four hour civilization game. Same company (sort of), but a completely different game!

After several plays, I must concede that the fans are true - this IS very close to having Sid Meyer's game as a board game - and it's actually a card game! Geography isn't quite as prevalent in the game, but it's still very enjoyable, and offers players a ton of choices while keeping everything very streamlined. I will say that some of the accounting and manipulation of bits is a bit fiddly, and it may be overpriced component wise - but the game offers a very deep and fulfilling experience. It's the best of its genre, one of the best games I've played lately - and an amazing amount of game packed in a small box.

Rather than condense the rules down, I thought I'd just point of some of the features of the game.

1.) When buying the game, it's certainly evident that you are buying the system, not the components. I'm not sure why the game carries such a hefty price tag, when it's basically just some decks of cards, cubes, and tokens. I'm not complaining about the quality of the components - it's quite good, it's just not at the level of the price. I quickly insert that the game is worth the price, but the game still feels a bit "bare bones". There have been some complaints about mistakes in the game, and parent company FRED Distributions has made a free kit that fixes these mistakes (although all of them but one are incredibly minor - and I missed most of them.) The cards are very functional, and the icons combined with reference cards keep everything fairly clear. Incidentally, the game is being reprinted, and all of the mistakes should be fixed in the new version.

2.) There are three sets of rules, although the "Simple" game really isn't worth playing for any other reason than to teach the game (and I've done that plenty of times!). The Advanced and Full Games are actually closer to each other, and I'm perfectly happy playing either of them. In fact, the Full Game only adds air forces and wars; and since this causes the game to go a little longer - I may actually prefer the Advanced Game.

3.) Speaking of length, Through the Ages is a decently long game - lasting about an hour per player. Because this makes it perhaps a bit too long with four, three seems to be the best number. Two players can certainly have an enjoyable time, but three allows there to be slightly more interaction, especially when it comes to combat.

4.) Civilization IV for the computer is currently my favorite PC game, as it just amazingly encompasses history and allows me to change and focus an entire civilization. I've always sought to see the same thing in a board game, and it's very apparent that the designer of this game did also, because many of the concepts are very close to those in the computer games. From the "smiley" face used to indicate happiness in a civilization, to the Wonders of the World having massive effects, to the buildings having the same name and effect - one has to almost wonder why the game isn't simply called Sid Meyer's Civilization: the Board Game. Of course, I already know that such a game exists, but this game does it better - much better.

5.) A complaint that is leveled against Through the Ages is a lack of terrain, and indeed, it's the only Civilization game that I've ever played that had no map. This was one the major reasons I had stayed away from the game to begin with, because I simply couldn't imagine a card game without a map sufficiently addressing the subject properly. After playing the game, I still think that the ultimate civilization game (if there is such a thing) will manage to incorporate a map into the game. However, after playing Through the Ages, I see that a map isn't essential to the actual building of a culture. There are some pseudo-map features to the game, with different territory cards that are fought over via combat; and for this game - that's enough. Through the Ages might have the subtitle, "A study of culture", because it's more about building up a Civilization than it is about conquering the world.

6.) One should know that the civilizations are also perfectly symmetrical at the beginning. Some games have limits on different civilizations (such as 7 Ages), and players will have a mighty fleet if playing the Vikings, and a propensity towards government if Romans. Here, your civilization is unnamed, and all are the same at the beginning. Players will be able to add leaders to their civilization, change their governments, and basically follow their paths, but their civilizations will always feel just a bit generic.

7.) That being said, the game offers a dizzying array of choices - so many that players may be overwhelmed at first. Of course players are going to concentrate on getting an economic engine running, and mines and farms are a must. After that, however, players must balance getting culture points (the way to win the game) with increasing military strength, along with keeping everyone happy, having an efficient government, and more. The tokens on the players' main card are used for a variety of means, and it's about as efficient as it can get without having a computer do the bookkeeping for you.

8.) Through the Ages IS a card game, and there is a line of cards that makes up the game, with several of them discarded after each turn. This helps bring the game to some sort of conclusion, but it also keeps players on their toes - if they see a card they want, the time to get it is now; because chances are high that another player will snag it, or that it will be shuffled off the card line. Moving the cards constantly can be slightly annoying, but it's a concept that works well, although I have no idea how it fits in thematically. All I know is that it works.

9.) There are various leaders in the game, from Moses to Maximilien Robespierre to Albert Einstein; and a player is really a fool who doesn't have one in their civilization at all times. However, while leaders give a great benefit, it's going to be a tough decision which to have in your civilization, since a player can only have one at a time. There is great debate between some players as to which leader is the best; but I've found them all useful, and they can help shape a player's strategy. For example, Bach gives great bonuses to a player for the amount of theaters they have; while Robespierre is there simply to help more easily transfer between governments, and Napoleon gives military bonuses. The faces and names help add to the theme of the game (except perhaps the final leader - the "game designer") and keep it from becoming too abstract.

10.) Having the right government is also important, since the governments drive the game. Each government gives a certain amount of military and non-military actions per turn. As the game progresses, the amount of actions increase; but each government has a different balance of war and peaceful actions. A player can ignore war but will likely do so to their detriment. Since the goal of the game is not really to conquer the world, it's not worth it to try and go that route (and I'm thankful, because it's simply never happened in history; so why dwell on it?); but one cannot ignore military options, or they will forgo a good half of the game. Tactics cards, which encourage different army formations, are one of my favorite parts of the game and add a bit of interest to a system of combat which could feel more like an auction than your typical dice-rolling affairs.

11.) The full game is divided into five basic eras, although the first era - Ancient - is more of a setup time than anything else and the last era (if you can even call it that!) just winds down the end game. Technology increases, and things grow more powerful and expensive as time goes by; and while it's not perfect, I'm very pleased with the passage of time within the game. It gets rather exciting, as it nears the conclusion.

12.) Not everything is peachy keen as the game plays out. As much as it would be fun simply to build up a nice economic engine and build wonders of the world and recruit powerful leaders, players must constantly keep their happiness level high, or an uprising may occur. Players also have to deal with irritating corruption the larger their production levels grow, although an alternate rule helps keep corruption lower for new players. As much as these travails pain me, I think they both help keep a good focus to the game. Winning despite your whiney population is a very good feeling.

There's a lot more I could write about the game, but despite many of the things I said, Through the Ages is an amazing game. Much of it is because the game has so many options and plays differently each time I try it out. It's very immersive; and even though the typical game takes around three hours, the time will fly by.r} Several decks of cards and a bunch of small wooden tokens combine to be a very good civilization building experience, one that is both addicting and fun.

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